A night at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto
The Bloor Cinema is a Toronto landmark, an 800-seat grand venue for film festivals and reparatory programming. Last year my film, Six Days (the story of the 1967 war that shaped the modern Middle East), played here at the Jewish Film Festival. This year, a group of young Canadian Jews invited me back with the film, as part of a planned series they’re organizing in an attempt to attract a younger Jewish audience to the festival.
All of this is hardly significant, besides the fact that I am writing this blog in the ornate balcony of the theater. I am alone. The 200-plus audience is downstairs. I am waiting for my film to end so that we can start the Q&A session, for which I came. On the screen both Jordanians and Israelis describe the final battle for Jerusalem in 1967. Among them, I can hear the voice of Hanan Porat, a paratrooper during the war, who grew to become one of the founders of the settlement movement. He is describing the emotional moment before the paratroopers entered the Old City of Jerusalem: “I felt as if I was part of King David’s army.” He had told me this while standing in front of Lion’s Gate, the gate in the Old Cities’ wall through which he and the other paratroopers entered Old Jerusalem.
I have watched this scene hundreds of times and now my mind drifts back to my last time filming in Israel. Recently I was there to film a scene for my current project Faith&Politics, a documentary about the 2008 American presidential campaign. I went to Israel literally following the trail of the biblical leader Joshua, who took over from Moses fighting his way into the Promised Land. The biblical Joshua? you may ask. What does he has to do with American politics? That was my initial reaction until I heard Barack Obama ‘s speech in the historic Brown Church in Selma Alabama, a monument to the Civil Rights movement.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Democratic candidate Barack Obama told the congregation. “I thank the Moses generation, but we’ve got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do…We’re going to leave it to the Joshua generation to make sure it happens.” I was surprised by Obama’s use of Joshua as a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle. I come from a place where Joshua is a very concrete individual …and a divisive one.
I guess I, too, can be called, “The Joshua ‘s generation,” but not in the sense Obama meant. I spent most of my military service in the Jordan valley fighting Palestinian guerilla infiltrators. In fact, a large part of my service was passed in and around Jericho, the city that Joshua allegedly occupied. I say “allegedly,” since part of the filming I did recently in Israel was a debate between three individuals, each holding a conflicting view on the subject.
Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun is one of the founders of Gush Emunim and considered one of the more important rabbis of the settlement movement. “Who is Joshua for you?” I asked him. “The leader of the first settlement project in the promised land,” he replied without hesitation.
I posed the same question to Dr. Nazmi Al Ju’beh, a Palestinian archeologist. For him, Joshua is a symbol of destruction and occupation. As a young schoolboy before 1967, Dr. Al Ju’beh worked for three summers on archeological digs in Jericho and Jerusalem, conducted by noted British archeologist Dame Kathleen Kenyon. In the early 1950s, Dame Kenyon came to the West Bank on a search for archeological evidence of biblical stories. Like many archeologists at the time, she was a devout Christian. Her groundbreaking dig in Jericho proved that the city was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned before the supposed arrival of Joshua. As an adult, Dr. Al Ju’beh caught up again with Kathleen Kenyon when she came to Bir Zeit University on the West Bank where he was studying archeology. “How do you reconcile your faith with your scientific discovery in Jericho,” he had asked her.
“In my head I know that Jericho was destroyed and abandoned long before the arrival of Joshua. I did not find any archeological basis to the bible story,” she replied. “But in my heart I still believe…so I have a conflict between my faith and my heart.”
Dr. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, a leading Israeli historian, refuses to treat the bible as a historical document. For him , as a historian, there are too many contradictions and too many events with no archeological basis. “What would you like to me do as a historian? he asked me rhetorically. He claims that for thousands of years religious Jews revered the bible as a theological document, and not as a historical narrative. It was the Protestants, he claims, and later the Zionist movement, that transformed it into an historical document: “They took Joshua from the theological book shelf where he lived for centuries and put him on the historical book shelf…my role as a critical historian is to put Joshua back on the theological shelf where he belongs… it is the only way to calm the region.”
To learn how this debate resolves itself, you will have to see the upcoming film, Faith&Politics. But listening to Hanan Porat’s words blurring in a Toronto theater reminds me of this struggle on how to define the bible. This struggle, I have grown to believe, is at the core of the political divisions not only in Israel, but also in the United States. Is the bible a profound theological document full of metaphors, or the literal words of God and a political guidebook on how to govern our political life as a society? Faith &Politics tries to explore the contours of this debate.